The Circus

The sun had begun to dip below the horizon when Marty and Monty rolled up to the house.  Luscious Jackson—who I had sacrificed so much to kidnap—lounged in the back seat.  My friends had borrowed a car—I’m not sure from whom—and were there to pick up Cathy.  Monty leaned on the horn and shouted out the window.

‘Let’s go, Cath.  I want good seats!’  Marty sat in back with the mannequin, smoking a joint at his leisure.  He seemed content now that he had a replacement for Tito.

Cathy came running out.  She hopped into the passenger seat and scooted over so she was practically sitting on Monty’s lap.  My aunt watched from the window with a vacant expression as the three of them skidded out of the driveway.

‘Jackson, are you sure this is going to be ok?’ she said.  ‘Having the circus on our property.  Are you sure it’s ok?’  I wasn’t sure, but seeing as how it had all been my idea I couldn’t very well back out now.

‘It’s the circus,’ I said.  ‘Everybody loves the circus.’

The Hamilton Place was a short drive.  We took the truck.  Helen sat beside me, Aunt Faye riding shotgun.  Helen held our tickets in her right hand.  If half of what Fuco said about his show were true, we were in for a treat.

We pulled off the main drag into the Hamilton Place.  I parked in the meadow by the road as dusk crept in.  Other cars were already lined up in crude semblance of a parking lot.  Fuco’s circus truck was also there; unloaded of circus paraphernalia, it seemed to have shrunk.

We followed a line of curious spectators through a grove of pines.  There was visible excitement on many faces, not a hint of prescience.  I saw young people and old people and black people and white people, all with the same anticipation in their step.

When the trees thinned and the field opened up in front of us, we saw the tent, heaving like an enormous lung.  Fuco had hired a work-crew to erect the tent.  It had taken them an entire day of assembling support poles and rigging elaborate rope and pulley systems.  I’d driven out to the field to keep Fuco company during the process.  He was supposed to be supervising the production but he spent more time regaling me with stories that had to be fiction.  In Atlanta Tristan ate two cows and jumped through a ring of fire.  In Birmingham Brünnhilde lifted a Volkswagen bus off a small child.  In Mobile I had Siegfried’s teeth polished—his mouth is oh so filthy.

Dusk had arrived as we entered the tent.  ‘I need darkness for my act,’ Fuco had told us.  ‘We will begin the show as the light fades.’  Since we didn’t know what to expect we accepted this requirement without question.

Meg stood by the door taking tickets, wearing peach-colored gypsy garb.  She was perfect for the job: flight attendants are accomplished ticket-takers.  She smiled as I handed her my ticket.  I saw her smile at Helen too.  Helen would have none of that.  She looked Meg up and down, judging her nemesis’ latest fashion miscue.

The tent was nearly full.  Fuco had rented bleachers and there were seats for three-hundred, each at twenty-dollars a pop. 

There were no empty seats by the time darkness fell.  I surveyed the crowd.  Some of them were familiar faces from town; some of them foreign.  I wondered if everyone was from Poscataw or if news of the circus had spread beyond the county precincts.

The din of voices was silenced by an unfamiliar oriental march as bugles blared over the scratchy PA.  A frown formed on my aunt’s face.  Had she expected John Philip Sousa?  Helen smiled and held my hand.  The show had begun.

A spotlight came up—illuminating an eight-foot circle at the middle of the tent—and under it we saw Brünnhilde the ape and Tristan the lion sitting together at a small picnic table.  There were no benches and both animals sat on their hindquarters.  The table was low: two feet high.  Brünnhilde wore a plastic gold crown and a crimson robe and a white fur sash.  She resembled one of those acting apes you see on TNT.  Tristan the lion was costumed as an English gentleman: a gray cape and something hanging over his head.  It took me a moment to recognize it as a powdered-white wig.

Another spotlight came up and we saw Fuco.  He stood atop a tower above the picnic table with a supernatural detachment, like Prospero.  He wore a white tuxedo with a red tie.  The long tail of the tuxedo extended down the back of his legs.  He wore a white top hat and held an ornamental black cane with a gold lion’s head for a grip.

‘Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he said.  His voice resonated over the PA, emphasizing his accent (which after all this time I still hadn’t identified).  A drum-roll sounded, crescendoed, decrescendoed, and held at an even pianissimo.

‘Welcome to the greatest show on earth.’  I could already see seeds of discomfort among the audience.  They were Southern yokels, remember, and Fuco had an unspecified accent that reminded them of every dubious foreigner they’d ever seen profiled on the news.

‘This…is the story of two people.’

An artificial wind ruffled Tristan’s mane.  Scraps of paper billowed about the circle of light—detritus on the wind.  Brünnhilde the ape puzzled at the weather, expecting rain.  I recognized what was about to happen.  A King Lear adaptation…this could get interesting. Helen let go of my hand.  I looked at her and she seemed to be getting agitated.

A dialogue began, with two voices—one male (Tristan) and one female (Brünnhilde).

‘Blow, winds, and crack you cheeks,’ said the female voice.  I cringed.  Fuco got Meg to do the voiceovers! Flight attendants are accomplished with the PA.  She did a nice job of faking a male voice.

‘O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better.’

I sat forward on my seat.  I hoped the lion and ape would do some tricks now, something spectacular to get the crowd back into it.  But they did nothing.  They sat in silence at the picnic table, eying each other with an uncertain lunchtime aggression.  Maybe they thought they shouldn’t be sitting there together, tea for two.

Siegfried the Komodo entered the scene, waddling into the circle of light to take his place at the table.  He wore a paper party hat—the kind you see at a six-year-old birthday party.  He placed one thorny foot on the table, then the other.  He stood up so he was at eye-level with the other beasts.  Siegfried also had lines.  Meg had chosen an inauthentic French accent for the Komodo.

‘Greetings, good friends,’ he said.  Like the other two animals, he didn’t move, standing stoic as rock, probing with his forked tongue.  ‘Things that love night love not such nights as these.  The wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark.’  Artificial wind continued to blow.

People all around me were getting agitated.  No one understood what the hell was going on.  The only reason I understood was because Fuco had hinted to me about his brainchild, telling me the story of how he’d thought of this script while he was drunk on absinthe.  He referred to his idea as ‘a new big idea for a big new show.’  That should have been my first clue that it wouldn’t fly—not in Poscataw, Mississippi.  All around me, I saw white mothers reaching for their chubby white sons: This is everything we didn’t like about the communists and the blacks.

Fuco spoke again, still perched high above the picnic table.  ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, these three actors were born in the wild.’  He gestured with his hand down at the three humiliated animals.  I saw a couple to my left look at each other in confusion.  Another drum-roll sounded and held.  I turned back to the picnic table.  There still was no movement, and now the voiceovers had stopped.  The animals weren’t even looking at each other.  They were all three looking up at Fuco, as if he were dangling a treat.  Then I looked closer and saw that he was dangling something.  It looked like a fish.  Fuck, it was a fish.

It was a big fish—thirty inches long—and when he dropped the thing it held in the air for just a moment, like a shimmering sail in the wind, before falling and landing with a thud on the table.

The three animals, so tame until now, pounced on the fish.  A peal of artificial thunder and lightening startled the audience and the lights went out.  When the lightening flashed again, a flashbulb over the picnic table, we momentarily saw the three beasts—ape, lion, and lizard—tearing into the fish, vicious and prehistoric.  They bit chunks of flesh from the carcass, not slowing to chew.  I was confused to see this from Brünnhilde the ape; I’d thought apes were herbivores.

The thunder and lightening stilled.  The tent was pitch black—night had fallen outside.  Everyone sat in stunned silence.  The only sound came from the three beasts feeding on carrion at the center of the ring.  Even Fuco was silent; his tower dark.  I sat in the darkness for a moment, unsure what to do, and grabbed for Helen’s hand in desperation.  She flicked it away.

‘This is no time to be holding hands,’ she hissed.  Fuco’s voice rang out across the PA, emerging out of darkness.

‘Beware the power of the beast!’

Fuck this.  I was pissed.  Why give us this Clan of the Cave-bear shit after setting us up with Shakespearian dialogue.  It was a heinous perversion of mythologies.

When the spotlight came on again, illuminating the same circle of light, I thought that maybe we had gotten through the worst of it.  I saw the three animals cautiously patrolling the periphery of the lit circle in the same way as gunfighters.  Brünnhilde sidestepped, never turning her back on the others.  Her cape had been torn and now lay in a crimson heap at the center of the circle, beside the fish remains.  I could no longer see her crown.  Tristan the lion seemed content to turn his back on these two as he strolled around the circle, but he was biggest and strongest so why would he be afraid?  He still wore his wig and cape, although the cape was shredded.  Siegfried was the most perplexed.  Komodo dragons are tough as nails but you never see them fighting anything as big as a lion or an ape, and you don’t see them wearing party hats (his now clung to his scaled head, off center).  Siegfried slinked back into the dark, accustomed to seeing in the dark.  Once or twice, he came under the light to reveal his reptilian snout and plotting tongue.

I wondered, still hopeful, if this was some kind of dance Fuco had choreographed for his three beasts.  I soon had an answer.  The animals weren’t dancing—they were about to fight.  The cause: residual hard feelings over the fish incident.  Somewhere in the audience I heard a baby cry out—penetrating the collective silence.  Other cries answered (how they held-off for so long, I don’t know).  Soon we had packed bleachers full of wailing children.  A few adults shouted disparaging comments at Fuco.  Boos were a forgone conclusion.  A mother in front of me cradled her son to her chest, just now realizing what an awful thing her baby boy had witnessed.  Several people got up and began making their way down the bleachers—early exiters.

Answering the children’s cries, Tristan growled.  Brünnhilde bellowed.  Siegfried hissed.  The lion and ape continued to circle the spotlit floor, moving in and out of the light.  Then came a yelp of surprise and the awful sound of snarling.  It took me a moment to figure out what had happened.  One minute Tristan was patrolling the circle of light, and the next he was dragged out of the circle.  Siegfried must have come in from the darkness, ambushing the lion.  I could hear the feline and the Komodo thrashing about in the darkness.  Brünnhilde—not wanting to be left out—loped across the circle of light to join the fracas.

As it turned out, the entire circus was nothing more than a lion, an ape, and a komodo bickering back and forth over dinner.  Fuco produced other snacks after the fish—a side of lamb, a very large steak, a Dominoes pizza.  On several occasions the animals tore into each other in competition for the food and I thought one of them would get hurt (during those moments, despite the murmur of upset children, I could hear the distinct snarl of the attacker and the whines of the attacked).  Fuco stood above the scene throughout the performance with a spotlight illuminating his torso.  He intoned strange one-liners that made no sense to anyone (‘We must honor the Beast’…’We must become more like our brother, the Beast’…’Ergo the Beast’).  Meg piped in a few times, too, with excerpts from Lear’s third act, but by the end of the performance she had been phased out.  This was Fuco’s Circus.

The houselights came up.  The show was over.  There was no applause.  Most of the crowd had already left.  Fuco stood on his tower, his arms stretched out in what amounted to a Christ pose.  Meg emerged from behind the bleachers and stood next to a panting Tristan.  The two human performers looked up at their audience in expectation, hoping for applause.  They would get none.  The animals, exhausted, sat in a tired circle.

The audience had already begun to exit, and with urgency.  Mother’s held crying babies close to them; fathers offered support to mothers; boyfriends calmed hysterical girlfriends; girlfriends calmed hysterical boyfriends.  No one could get out fast enough.

There were plenty of nasty looks reserved for Aunt Faye: eyes full of accusation, as if Faye had murdered someone they loved.  I saw my aunt sink into herself.  Fuck, they think she sanctioned this. They think she helped plan it. Everyone blamed her for this decadent thing, this perversion.  It had taken place on her land and the performers had once been guests at her home.  I received my share of threatening looks but I was used to it and didn’t have to spend the rest of my life living next door to these people.

I tried to apologize.  ‘Aunt Faye, I-

‘Jackson….’  She turned to face me.  Her cheeks were red.  She avoided looking me in the eye.  ‘….You will leave my house by tomorrow evening.  I want you to leave the county, and I want you to take your friends with you.  Take the lion tamer and his gypsy girlfriend and their monsters too, and take your drug-addicted friends and take Cathy, too, for all I care.  Take them all and get out of here.  Give me the keys,’ she said.  I handed her the keys to the truck without hesitation.  I wasn’t going to argue with her now.

‘Helen,’ my aunt said.  ‘Are you riding with me or walking home with Jackson?’  Helen opted for the ride.  I went looking for Fuco.  I found him on the showroom floor.  The bleachers were empty but there was a crowd gathered around Meg—people (mostly fathers) demanding their money back.  Under great duress, Meg was handing out twenty-dollar bills at a rapid rate.  I pushed my way through the crowd.

‘Ah, friend Jackson,’ Fuco said.  ‘How did you like the show?’

I thought for a moment on how I should answer.  A friend would be unconditional in his response, offering encouragement.  The delusion in Fuco’s eyes was almost intoxicating.

‘Fuco, I thought it was awful and perverse.  It was a total travesty.  Children were crying.  It was embarrassing to my family.’

‘But my friend, you dodge my question: what did you think of it.’

‘I thought it was humiliating and strange.  It made me not want to talk to you anymore.’

‘My friend, you go too far.  I seek to make children smile.’

‘You made them cry, for Christ’s sake.’

‘I fear, my friend, you are getting upset. Let me help you.’  He reached out as if to brush dust from my shirtfront—as if this were the source of my agitation.

‘Forget it, Fuco.  Just forget it.’  I stepped back.  ‘Just forget it.’  I turned to go before thinking better of it.  ‘Fuco, how did you get Brünnhilde to eat that fish like that?  I didn’t think gorillas ate meat.’

‘It took much time and training, my friend, but Brünnhilde: she is one talented ape.’

‘Yeah, right.  Well I don’t think people enjoyed her too much tonight.’  I tried to say this as ironically as I could. 

‘Alas…’  Fuco shook his head.  ‘This was the reaction in Biloxi, as well.’

‘I thought this was a new show.’

‘It is, but the shows are all very similar.’

‘That sounds like a great shtick you’ve got going, Fuco.  And now I’m gonna get out of here.  Aunt Faye kicked Helen and me out and I’m sure she doesn’t want to host any more shows at the Hamilton Place.’

Just then Marty and Monty collided with our small group.

‘Hey man!’ Marty yelled to Fuco.  ‘That was fucking fabulous!’

‘Original,’ Monty said.  ‘Unique.  Breathtaking.’

Fuco beamed.  He needed the affirmation.

‘What’d you think, Jack?’ Monty said.

I didn’t feel like killing the mood.

‘Spectacular,’ I said.  I hitched a ride home with Marty and Monty.  My aunt was right: it was time for us to leave Mississippi.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Probably the best piece of writing I have read!!


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